Nexen SS Kang Jung-ho stays hot in playoff showcase for MLB clubs

November 5, 2014
Kang Jung-ho of the Nexen Heroes, right, connects for a two-run home run off Cha Woo-chan of the Samsung Lions during Game 1 of the Korean Series on Nov. 4, 2014, in Daegu. (Yonhap)

Kang Jung-ho of the Nexen Heroes, right, connects for a two-run home run off Cha Woo-chan of the Samsung Lions during Game 1 of the Korean Series on Nov. 4, 2014, in Daegu. (Yonhap)

DAEGU (Yonhap) — With a possible move to Major League Baseball (MLB) for next season on the horizon, the Nexen Heroes shortstop Kang Jung-ho is having himself a fine audition, wielding a hot bat on the biggest stage in South Korean baseball.

Kang belted a go-ahead, two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 1 in the championship Korean Series against the Samsung Lions on Tuesday, helping his club defeat the three-time defending Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) champs 4-2 on the road in Daegu.

Kang has now homered in three straight postseason games, one shy of matching the all-time KBO record shared by two players. The way he’s been going lately, Kang could have the record by himself when the series is over.

The free-agent-to-be shortstop could be playing in the majors next season. The 27-year-old has completed his equivalent of seven full KBO regular seasons, and will be granted conditional free agency after the end of the Korean Series. And with the Heroes’ blessing, Kang can either enter negotiations with Japanese clubs or be posted for MLB clubs this winter.

Though he has insisted he’s concentrating on helping the Heroes win the championship this year, Kang once said if he had to choose, he’d prefer to play in the MLB to Japan because he’d like to play with and against the very best in the business.

Kang put up massive regular season numbers to warrant attention from big league scouts. He hit 40 homers and drove in 117 runs, both single-season KBO records for a shortstop. He was second and third in those categories.

Kang batted .356 to rank fourth. He topped the league with a .739 slugging percentage and came in second with a .459 on-base percentage.

Kang has been just as devastating in the postseason.

In the four games in the previous playoff round against the LG Twins, Kang batted 8-for-15 (.533) with two home runs and four RBIs to earn the series MVP honors. After three days off before the Korean Series, Kang picked up right where he left off. Before the two-run jack, Kang had driven in the team’s second run with a sacrifice fly in the third.

For the eighth inning homer, Kang hit a 3-1 slider from lefty reliever Cha Woo-chan. Kang said afterward he was waiting for an offspeed pitch.

“Cha told me before the game he would throw me nothing but breaking balls, and he lived up to his words,” Kang said of his close friend. “Since I can hit fastballs well, I didn’t think he would throw me one. I was lucky that he made a mistake with the pitch.”

Kang has been far more productive than last year’s postseason, when he was just 3-for-22, with no home runs, no extra-base hits and no RBIs, as the Heroes were eliminated in five games in the first round.

Thanks to his strong postseason, Kang’s stock could be rising as quickly as his slugging percentage.

The U.S. media have speculated that the Heroes will post him later this month. Peter Gammons, a respected baseball columnist, tweeted last week that Kang was “winter’s most interesting posting candidate.”

Earlier this week, Yahoo! Sports ranked him 33rd among 165 free agents this offseason, and Keith Law, a widely read columnist, rated Kang 15th among the top 50 free agents on ESPN.com.

Scouts have raised questions about Kang’s defense, saying his inconsistency on the field may force a position change if he reaches the MLB.

Dispelling at least some of the concerns, Kang made a spectacular defensive play Tuesday, robbing Chae Tae-in of a sure base hit in the bottom third with a diving grab on a sinking liner.

The play came at a crucial moment. Yamaico Navarro had tied the score at 2-2 with a two-run home run earlier in the inning, and if Chae had reached with a hit, the Lions would’ve had the heart of their order coming up for a chance to take the lead.

After Kang’s catch, starter Andy Van Hekken settled down and struck out cleanup Choi Hyoung-woo.

For all the talk surrounding his future, Kang reiterated Tuesday that his focus remains on the job at hand.

“More so than setting records, I am trying to concentrate on capitalizing on opportunities and helping the team win,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to play with more confidence going forward after taking the first game.”

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